(Reproduced with permission from the Humboldt County Convention & Visitors Bureau) 

Eureka: My Fair City

Can a wild and wooly lumber town be tamed into a sophisticated hub of art, culture and fine living? Historic Eureka makes the case.  

By Tony Smithers


Jack London used to like Eureka. Always on the lookout for authentic, rugged characters on which to base his books, the author of The Sea Wolf and Call of the Wild would quit his usual haunts in Oakland for a while and jump on a steamer bound for Humboldt Bay.

He found plenty of fodder for his imaginative pen. Born and raised in the timber industry, Eureka was a sprawling, two-fisted working town that roared lustily with sawmills, foundries and steam engines. Lumber schooners tied up two-deep along her waterfront, and come quitting time her working men lined up three deep at the bars in saloons all along Two Street, as Second Street was called.  

But Jack should have stayed quietly in a corner, taking notes. One day in 1912 he was having a drink in the Oberon Saloon—across from the Vance Hotel, it was one of Eureka’s better watering holes—when he got into an argument with one of the Murphy boys, scions of a local lumber family. Mr. Murphy took exception to London’s politics, and invited him to settle the matter in the then-approved fashion. The door was locked, the shades drawn, and the fistfight lasted most of an hour.

Nearly a century later, the name “Oberon” still graces the tiled threshold near the corner of Second and F Streets, and the same ornate Victorian chandelier that witnessed the famous brawl still illuminates the long narrow building.  But the polished bar is gone, replaced by an upscale culinary and cookware shop. Looking across Second Street, the just-renovated Vance Hotel now harbors offices, shops and gourmet restaurants. A block over on First Street, ratty wharfs have given way to a pristine new Boardwalk where families stroll to savor the beauty of Humboldt Bay.

The gritty, rough-and-tumble Eureka Jack London knew has been transformed into a peaceful, gracious city. Like George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (or My Fair Lady of Broadway), she has been thoroughly scrubbed, beautifully dressed, and schooled to a sophistication that belies her working class origins.

This Old Town

Street after street of carefully restored and meticulously painted historic buildings reveal both an appreciation for the past and an artistic flair for living. As the Vance Hotel suggests, the comfortable old buildings are home to businesses that meet today’s needs, regardless of their original purpose. A corner drugstore now harbors a gallery featuring locally handcrafted gifts and collectibles; a former title office shelters an antique shop, an erstwhile bank houses the Clarke Historical Museum.

The resulting streetscape is unique to Eureka and reminds one of some historic theme park or Hollywood back lot. But you’ll find no artificial experience created for the benefit of picture-snapping travelers. Old Town is a living, breathing community where Eurekans come to shop, dine and relax. More than that, Eureka’s burgeoning arts scene centers on Old Town and the F Street Cultural Arts District. From the Morris Graves Museum of Art and the Eureka Film & Concert Center at one end, to the numerous shops and galleries featuring the works of Humboldt County painters, sculptors, potters, jewelers, woodworkers, weavers and other artists, Old Town offers a delightful excursion into Redwood Coast culture. It takes no leap of the imagination to understand why Eureka was named “America’s Best Small Arts Town” in a national guidebook.

Hand-made, unique and old are the key words to describe shopping in Old Town. Antique dealers and used bookstores abound; craft galleries feature the finest products of local artisans, while specialty shops offer the highest quality imports. Visitors looking for cheesy t-shirts or kitschy trinkets will be disappointed; they can console themselves over a hand-crafted beer in either of Old Town’s brew pubs—just one of many choices that are turning Old Town into a dining Mecca. There are over 15 restaurants ranging from fresh seafood to Italian, Mexican, Chinese and California fusion. Several nearby hotels also offer gourmet cuisine and award-winning wine lists. Fresh local products including salmon, oysters, crabs and cheese get star billing on Eureka menus; determined foodies from as far away as San Francisco are starting to take notice.

To round out the Old Town Eureka experience, many residents and visitors take in a play or concert after their dinner. Several acclaimed theater companies are located in the area, while many restaurants, hotels, coffee houses and clubs regularly offer live entertainment.

The Rest Is History

Old Town may be the most brilliant jewel in Eureka’s crown, but there are many other gems worthy of notice. If you stand on the Boardwalk and look across the bay, you can’t help but notice the busy marina on Woodley Island. Accessed via the Samoa Bridge, this is an interesting side trip to look at fishing and pleasure boats, view the Table Bluff Lighthouse and the Fisherman Memorial Statue, or merely sit on the restaurant’s deck and enjoy the sunshine and bay breezes. If you continue west on the Samoa Bridge, you’ll discover the Samoa Cookhouse, a Eureka institution. This is the last operating lumbercamp cookhouse in America, still serving up breakfast, lunch and dinner in all-you-can-eat family style after 100 years. The cookhouse also offers a fascinating little museum full of logging memorabilia.

A much larger collection of logging relics can be viewed at Fort Humboldt State Historic Park, just off of Broadway on the hill above the Bayshore Mall. There are two museum buildings, while outside you’ll find larger pieces of timber industry equipment. On summer weekends, working steam donkeys and locomotives are fired up. The Blue Ox Millworks and Historic Park tells another side of the timber story, demonstrating on working vintage equipment how the wood is milled and turned into the elaborate gingerbread decoration gracing historic buildings throughout Eureka. The Blue Ox tour includes a peek at a blacksmith shop, antique printing presses, ship building and a logging skid camp.

This experience hardly begins to prepare you for the utter loveliness of Eureka’s residential neighborhoods, where the renewal of Old Town is mirrored by a renaissance of historic home renovation. Pride of ownership shines through in the meticulously restored and painted Victorian masterpieces (there are about 10,000 historic homes in Eureka, a town of only 38,000).  In 2000, Eureka was named one of “America’s Prettiest Painted Places” in a national contest. A drive down just about any street rewards you with block after block of showcase homes, with gardens blooming full of the roses, azaleas and rhododendrons that thrive in the mild Redwood Coast climate.

Sophisticated lady that she is, Eureka delights in teasing and surprising. Just when you’ve figured out her heritage, her culture and her gracious living, she turns around and reveals she still has a wild side—a 77-acre tract of old growth redwoods, smack dab in the middle of town. The virgin forest of Sequoia Park & Zoo is a constant reminder that Eureka, however elegant she is today, was wrested from a primal wilderness by a tough and hardy breed of pioneers. Loggers, millworkers, soldiers and sailors, they were men after Jack London’s heart.

To learn more about Eureka and the rest of California’s Redwood Coast, including travel information, visit www.redwoods.info or call 800-346-3482.